“Scandal”’s Olivia Pope became a pop culture icon for a reason: Played with irrepressible ferocity by Kerry Washington, the DC fixer ingested red wine by the bottleful and spat powerful invective right back out, charming her way into households across America for six seasons of bodice-ripping romance and antiheroic intrigue. Is it any surprise, then, that Washington would return to the well, this time as the executive producer (and sometimes director) of Hulu’s new legal drama “Reasonable Doubt,” which asks the following question: What if Olivia went into the private sector, but stayed just as messy? And, with the looser content restrictions of streaming, could we see a bit more of the mess?
Emayatzy Corinealdi (“Ballers”) plays Jax Stewart, another rough-around-the-edges Black professional with an attitude twice as big to counter the overwhelming whiteness of her colleagues and profession. Formerly a public defender with designs to fight the racial inequities in the criminal justice system, now she’s a high-profile criminal defense lawyer in LA saddled with a hell of a case: defending wealthy Black entrepreneur Brayden Miller (Sean Patrick Thomas) first from accusations of sexual assault by a Black female executive under her employ, then from a murder charge after that same woman turns up dead the following day.
That’s not all, as “Reasonable Doubt” takes just as much time (if not more so) dissecting Jax’s busted family life. She’s separated from her husband Lewis (McKinley Freeman), who lives elsewhere but still keeps the cameras he installed around their house—and isn’t shy about watching them when she has male company over. What’s more, she’s suddenly confronted with her attraction to Damon Cook (an always-smoldering Michael Ealy), an incarcerated man she failed to defend 15 years ago as a PD, now out on parole and hoping to rekindle their flame.
All three of these major plot threads make for plenty of smoke and flame across the show’s eight hour-long episodes, with creator and showrunner Raamla Mohamed (who’s written for Washington on both “Scandal” and “Little Fires Everywhere”) maintaining a suitably tawdry tone to the whole series. In the courtroom and the boardroom, Jax is a force to be reckoned with, swatting down arguments and misgivings with the skill of Jack McCoy. Outside the halls of justice, she’s a hot mess, pulled between at least three different men and the very bad things she does with them. Jax is addicted to being bad; “I ... love ... criminals,” she mutters in voiceover as she screws the security guard Lewis hired for her, knowing he can see from those aforementioned cameras.
Corinealdi handles all of Jax’s contradictions with fiery aplomb, bobbing from one end of Jax’s impulsive, messy whims to the other. Her chemistry with Ealy is top-notch, slinking closer to and further away from him the more the wrongness of their dynamic entices her. That said, the ongoing push-and-pull of her many love interests grows a bit tiresome as the season progresses, especially as Lewis grows less and less sympathetic.
The rest of the cast don’t fare as well, unfortunately, the scripts saddling them with some pretty corny dialogue and paper-thin character traits. There’s the nerdy young Korean investigator (Tim Jo) who dispenses cringeworthy anti-jokes at lightning speed, the put-upon white partner (Christopher Cassarino) who has Jax’s back, but still gets called a “mark-ass buster” by clients, Jax’s gang of thinly-drawn female friends, each with their own interchangeable conflicts that serve as limp reflections of Jax’s own concerns.
The season’s various conflicts proceed at a snail’s pace and feel decidedly weighted toward Jax’s will-they-won’t-they love life, to the point where the season-long case feels like a vestigial subplot. The show’s attempts at political commentary feel just as messy, consisting primarily of on-the-nose lines about rape culture and the optics of rich Black men marrying white women.
But when “Reasonable Doubt” indulges in its seedier, soapier side, it can be trashy fun. Pauletta Washington (wife of Denzel and screen legend in her own right) is a hoot as Jax’s nosy mother, dispensing advice alongside rabid side-eyes through an increasingly dazzling array of cute sunglasses. Lines like “You let a blowjob and some cocoa butter lead you astray” and “I’m trying to be a housewife, when I’m really just a ho-wife?” are impossible not to snicker at, and I suspect that’s the point. After all, the murder weapon in the case is the broken stem of a wine glass, in case you’re wondering what tone the show is going for.
It’s all helped along by a staggeringly groovy score from Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad (“Luke Cage”), who soak the proceedings in a soothing, sexy ‘70s R&B vibe—exceedingly helpful for when Jax gets down and dirty. The score’s aided by a killer soundtrack that includes hits from Jill Scott, Judie Tzuke, The Pharcyde, and Tyler, the Creator (some of which end up sung along to in the show’s many interminable solo car rides). Still, when the beats are this hot, can you blame them?
It’s hard to say whether the sleazy thrills and bursts of melodrama are worth the occasionally leaden pace “Reasonable Doubt” offers up. After all, I’m well aware I am not the target audience; the show is the inaugural effort of Disney’s Onyx Collective, an internal content brand meant to showcase the world of creators of color. And for those looking for “Diet Scandal,” it might well hit the spot, even if it feels like a more excessive also-ran.
"Reasonable Doubt" premieres on Hulu on September 27th.